Executives at Ionic Materials announced a design breakthrough that could make solid-state alkaline batteries a viable alternative to lithium-ion and other high-energy storage technologies.
SAN FRANCISCO — A startup company is trying to turbocharge a type of battery that has been a mainstay for simple devices like flashlights and toys, but until now has been ignored as an energy source for computers and electric cars.
Executives at Ionic Materials, in Woburn, Massachusetts, announced Thursday a design breakthrough that could make solid-state alkaline batteries a viable alternative to lithium-ion and other high-energy storage technologies.
Alkaline batteries can be made far more cheaply and safely than today’s lithium-ion batteries, but they are not rechargeable. That issue, along with the superior power of lithium-ion batteries, has meant that alkaline batteries are not used in personal computers, smartphones or electric vehicles.
Ionic could change that equation with an alkaline battery the company said could be recharged hundreds of times. Another benefit: An alkaline battery would not be as prone to the combustion issues that have plagued lithium-ion batteries.
Cheaper and more powerful batteries are also considered by many to be the driver needed to make the cost of renewable energy technologies like wind and solar competitive with the coal, gas and nuclear power that support the national energy grid.
Ionic said it had developed prototypes of a rechargeable alkaline battery that can be made using continuous manufacturing processes similar to the making of plastic wrap. So far, the company, which is backed by William Joy, a pioneering Silicon Valley computer designer, has demonstrated up to 400 recharge cycles for its prototypes. Ionic executives say they believe they will be able to triple that.
The alkaline batteries that Ionic has developed would initially be heavier than today’s lithium-ion batteries, said Mike Zimmerman, a materials scientist who is the founder and chief executive of Ionic. But the new batteries would more than compensate for that handicap with their cost advantage and, in time, their ability to store more energy.
There are other advantages besides cost and safety. Lithium-ion batteries rely on cobalt, and using that element comes with a human cost. Cobalt mines in Africa have been accused of using child labor while leaving behind a toxic mess. Alkaline batteries, on the other hand, use relatively abundant zinc and manganese.
Ionic made its announcement in Colorado at a conference for the 35th anniversary of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a sustainable-energy research group founded by the physicist and environmentalist Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins, his former wife.
“They started with a very sensible set of criteria,” Amory Lovins said of Ionic. “They use an unusual electrolyte to come up with a battery that uses common cheap materials and is benign.”
But he added a note of caution: “Batteries are very difficult and I want to see what they have and what can be measured and proven and whether it will get to market.”